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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



Mon.-Fri.  20:00 - 20:40 (JST)

Automakers Showcase Eco-Cars

Yuko Fukushima

Oct. 29, 2015

The 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, one of the premier events for the global auto industry, kicked off on Thursday. And the focus for many Japanese automakers this time around appears to be on eco-friendly vehicles and stylish luxury cars.

Honda's answer to clean driving is a fuel-cell sedan called Clarity. The key advance this year is more seating space. Engineers achieved this by squeezing the fuel-cell battery under the hood, just like a conventional engine. It runs on hydrogen and the only emission is water. The car has a range of 700km and can even generate electricity for other uses.

Nissan was the first company to mass produce electric cars. Its latest model of the Leaf lets drivers go 280 km on a single charge. It’s also equipped with an automatic braking system that kicks in when it detects a possible collision.

Toyota continues to tinker with hybrid technology. The new Prius comes with an upgraded motor, battery and engine. Engineers say they used lighter components to achieve better fuel combustion. Toyota is promising a 10 percent increase in fuel economy.

Efficiency and functionality have been at the heart of Japanese car design for years, some say at the expense of visual appeal. But the latest models on display at the Tokyo Motor Show reflect a renewed emphasis on branding and style.

In the luxury category, Toyota is determined to close the gap with European automakers. The Lexus RX is the company's best-selling premium car. It's been redesigned from bumper to bumper. Sporting a longer wheelbase and larger tires, Toyota describes the look as muscular and sophisticated.

"We want the RX to become a design icon, so we can gradually build a style for the whole brand," says Takayuki Katsuda, Chief Engineer for Lexus International.

Over at the Mazda booth, designers are pitching a style to cover all categories, from sedans to SUVs. They say creating a familiar look will strengthen Mazda's brand image.

The makeover is already turning heads in Europe. Mazda won a number of design awards at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

"Design used to be a minor issue, but now it's a big deal,” says Ikuo Maeda, Executive Officer and Design Chief at Mazda. “Customers now choose cars based on design. It's very important. If we want to improve Mazda's brand image, we have to have higher quality design."

Meanwhile, a scandal involving Volkswagen has put green vehicles in the spotlight -- but for all the wrong reasons.

The fall-out from cheating on emissions could have serious implications, and not just VW. Governments around the world have been leaning on automakers to reduce emissions of carbon gases. Now regulators are likely to place new demands on carmakers. And it could be costly.

The Volkswagen scandal is having major repercussions, starting with the test method for car emissions.

That method involves inspectors putting the car on a laboratory test rig. Gas emissions are measured in controlled conditions. This way, all cars can be tested and compared using the same driving patterns.

Volkswagen abused this test method. Computer software in VW engines could sense when its cars were being tested on a rig. With this inspection mode activated, the software instructed the car to use full emissions control.

Out on the road, it was a different story. When the car was running normally, the software switched to driving mode. In this state, emission controls were relaxed. As a result, VW's supposedly clean diesel engines were emitting up to 40 times more particles than legally permitted.

One reason the Volkswagen cheating surfaced was because of improvements in testing technology. The new systems enable inspectors to check cars on the road.

Researchers from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) exposed the VW fraud. Group member Yasuhiro Daisho says car emission testing needs a thorough overhaul.

"In addition to continued testing in laboratories, we need to measure the amount of gas emitted from the car when it actually runs on the road,” says Daisho, who is a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “We need to do this to make sure car emissions don’t significantly exceed legal limits. I hope the introduction of this new type of testing method will contribute to rules for cleaner air."

But VW may not be the only automaker that needs to clean up its act. ICCT researchers in the US did an on-road test of 15 vehicles. All of these cars had passed laboratory tests for emission standards. But running under normal conditions, only one car came in below the legal limit.

Transport authorities have been studying the feasibility of on-road tests. Some of these plans are now on the fast-track.

"I'm not saying all carmakers are suspect because of the Volkswagen scandal, but I think it's a good idea that we revise our gas emissions tests in light of the scandal," says French Environment Minister Segolene Royal.

Former Japanese Transport Minister Akihiro Ota says his real-world tests are also being considered in his country.

"We're looking at whether it is appropriate to test gas emissions only in the laboratory,” Ota says. “We would like to study the feasibility of also conducting sampling tests for emissions on the road."

But Takaki Nakanishi, a car analyst and CEO of Nakanishi Research Institute, sees problems ahead. Most carmakers have been focused on cutting down carbon emissions, the gases blamed for global warming. Now they face another expense to protect the environment.

"The problems related to nitrogen emissions have not been solved, as once thought,” Nakanishi says. “The problem is coming back. The industry now has to solve the two issues of particle emissions and global warming at the same time. That is a technological challenge, and will cost a lot of money to solve."

Nakanishi says the push for tighter environmental regulations has put carmakers under the gun. They'll have to speed up R&D; work to meet the new standards.

Yuko Fukushima joined Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: So the writing is on the wall. Governments around the world are ready to impose tighter environmental regulations. What are carmakers going to do about it?

Fukushima: The obvious strategy is to double down on green cars. Automakers need to get more zero-emission cars -- that includes electric cars and fuel-cell vehicles -- off the drawing board and on the road. But according to the International Energy Agency it's going to take time. It says cars with diesel and gasoline engines will still dominate in 2020, accounting for 90% of cars on the road. Even in 2050, the number will be 50%. So while carmakers are developing new technology, they also need to improve the efficiency of conventional engines.

Shibuya: That’s going to require a lot of investment in R&D.; How will carmakers deal with that?

Fukushima: Yes... carmakers will need huge funding to develop all the technologies and it will be difficult for one company alone to do it. So analysts say we will see more technology alliances and even mergers. We already see it happening. Toyota and Mazda agreed on a tie-up in May. Toyota is a leading company in hybrids and other new technologies. Mazda has won a reputation for efficient conventional engines. Even so, it's going to be a tough road ahead for carmakers.

Tomorrow, I'll be reporting about one of the options carmakers are looking at -- and that's cleaner diesel engines. This is where Volkswagen got into so much trouble, of course. I'll be reporting on the progress a Japanese company is making in this field.